DHAKA: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks during an election campaign rally in Dhaka yesterday. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina heads to the polls in Bangladesh this week on course for a historic victory, while her ailing opponent faces an uncertain future in a colonial-era Dhaka jail. - AFP

DHAKA: Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina heads to the polls in Bangladesh this week on course for
a historic victory, while her ailing opponent faces an uncertain future in a
colonial-era Dhaka jail. Bangladesh's "Battling Begums" have been
fighting each other for three decades, but the 71-year-old Hasina is set to
extend her record as the country's longest serving leader after dispatching
Khaleda Zia, her chief rival. The two women have been political royalty-begums-since
the 1980s. Zia, 73, is the widow of a military dictator and Hasina's father was
the country's founding leader.

They joined
forces to dethrone military dictator Hussain Muhammed Ershad in 1990 and
restore democracy. But they became arch-foes after Zia was elected prime
minister in 1991, and the duo have alternated in power ever since in the South
Asian nation. Hasina is now seeking a fourth term and opinion polls indicate
she will have little problem at the December 30 poll despite criticism of her
government's slide towards authoritarian rule. Zia meanwhile is serving a
17-year jail term on graft charges that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
insists were "politically motivated".

The convictions
mean Zia cannot contest the poll, which the BNP says will be neither free nor
fair. It claims thousands of activists have been jailed in recent months. Zia
suffers from arthritis and diabetes, has had knee replacement surgery and can
barely move one of her hands. Western diplomats have written off her chances of
a comeback. "She is politically finished," said one diplomat based in
Dhaka, adding Zia's only chance for escape would be if she is offered medical
leave abroad. The fallout has spread to the Zia dynasty. Her youngest son died
in exile in Bangkok in 2015. Her eldest child, Tarique Rahman, who masterminded
his mother's return to power in 2001, went into exile in London in 2008.

In October, he
was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in a 2004 grenade attack
on a Hasina rally in which at least 20 people were killed.  Analysts say that even though she is out of
the limelight, Zia still casts a huge shadow over the election. "It is
fair to say that the conventional portrayal of Bangladeshi politics as the
'Battle of the Begums' has taken a back seat, for the moment," said
Illinois State University political science professor Ali Riaz. "But it is
too early to write the political obituary of Khaleda Zia. Although she is not
on the ballot, her name and influence is not diminished."

Boycott campaign

Zia's woes
started with her decision to boycott the 2014 election, which the BNP said was
rigged after Hasina scrapped a caretaker government system used for previous
polls. Dozens were killed in subsequent violence. A nationwide road and railway
blockade the following year, aiming to force Hasina into an early election,
left up to 150 more dead. Many people were angered by the campaign and analysts
said it allowed Hasina to launch a crackdown on the BNP.

decision to boycott the election and then enforcing the blockades were
suicidal," said Ataur Rahman, a political science professor in Dhaka.
"They weakened the party and handed Hasina a big opportunity to target her
opponents and create what has since emerged as a one-party dominant political
system." Few believe that the Zia family will lose its grip on the BNP,
especially in a region where political dynasties are a way of life. Zia's son,
the acting party head, interviewed aspiring candidates for the party by video
conference from London. "These all are indications that the Zia dynasty is
still very strong and maintains strong authority over the party," said
Oslo University lecturer Mubashar Hasan.- AFP